Extensive research has examined the influence of perfectionism on academic performance with inconsistent results. This study investigated the relationship between perfectionism and academic performance using GPA as the measure of academic performance. It was hypothesized that as cumulative GPA increased, perfectionism would also increase. Randomly selected students from a small Midwestern liberal arts university were administered the Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale and their scores were compared with their cumulative GPA using a Pearson r correlation coefficient. No statistically significant link between perfectionism and cumulative GPA was found. A possible implication of this study is that religious beliefs and affiliations of participants may impact perfectionistic behavior and impressions.
The relationship between GPA and perfectionism
Scientific literature’s portrayal of perfectionism has been predominantly negative. The tendency to see perfectionism as problematic and negative dominated many early attempts to measure it. Even though perfectionism has been consistently linked to unhealthy conditions such as eating disorders (Forbush, Heatherton, & Keel, 2007; Forsberg & Lock, 2006; Schwarz, Gairrett, Aruguete, & Gold, 2005), obsessive compulsive disorder, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, alcoholism, suicide, and a host of other ailments (Hamilton & Schweitzer, 2000; Pacht, 1984), one should not conclude that these conditions are caused by perfectionism or that perfectionism is essentially destructive. Helpful advancements in the classifications of perfectionism have enabled researchers to more precisely define and measure perfectionism. In contrast to earlier work in the field, the results of recent research on perfectionism have supported a multidimensional view of the variable that includes positive as well as negative attributes (Ashby & Rice, 2002; Chang, 2000; Suddarth & Slaney, 2001). The main purpose of the present study was to identify and highlight the positive aspects of perfectionism. Emphasis was placed on the correlation between traditional college-aged perfectionists’ grade point average (GPA) and its relation to the GPA of students not classified as perfectionists.
Current research suggests that perfectionism is a multidimensional concept that consists of both adaptive and maladaptive traits and tendencies (Grzegorek, Slaney, Franze, & Rice, 2004; Rice & Ashby, 2007; Rice & Dellwo, 2002; Rice & Slaney, 2002; Suddarth & Slaney, 2001). Clearly discerning between which tendencies fairly and accurately define perfectionism as well as distinguishing the differences between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism are difficult tasks. The Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (FMPS) (Frost, Marten, LaHart, & Rosenblate, 1990) focuses on six dimensions: Concern Over Mistakes, Personal Standards, perception of Parental Expectations, perception of Parental Criticism, Doubting of Actions, and a preference for Order and Organization. For this study, we employed those six dimensions to serve as an operational definition of perfectionism. Adaptive perfectionism is measured by the Personal Standards and Organization subscales, while the other four subscales measure maladaptive perfectionism (Rice, Ashby & Slaney, 1998)
Slaney, Chadha, &Mobley (2000), using participants classified as perfectionists, noted high performance standards and a need for orderliness as two of the most distinguishing characteristics of perfectionism. Neumeister (2004) interviewed 12 self-described perfectionists at an American university and found that nearly all of the participants expressed a high need for control. These characteristics are affirmed by other studies which also found perfectionists to have higher personal performance standards and expectations compared to those not classified as perfectionists (Dickinson & Ashby, 2005; Orange, 1997). Slaney et al. (2000) found that most perfectionists also admitted that their actual performance often did not meet their high expectations which caused them a great deal of stress.
Maladaptive perfectionists, in particular, seem to be more self-critical and less satisfied with their accomplishments (Grzegorek, et al., 2004). For example, the maladaptive perfectionists expressed more concern and dissatisfaction over their GPA although it did not differ significantly from those of the other participants (Rice & Dellwo, 2002). Adaptive perfectionists, on the other hand, also experienced high expectations from others and themselves (although they reported less parental criticism) but did not report acute worry and stress over meeting those expectations (Rice & Ashby, 2007; Rice & Dellwo, 2002; Rice & Slaney, 2002). Research supports that adaptive perfectionists also have higher self-esteem and life satisfaction than maladaptive perfectionists (Rice & Dellwo, 2002).
In contrast, nonperfectionists not only displayed lower average scores on measures assessing personal standards, self-criticism, self-doubt, and concern over mistakes (Rice & Ashby, 2007) but also seemed less conscientious of high expectations of others (Rice & Slaney, 2002). They also demonstrated less ability to focus attention on tasks for extended periods of time than their perfectionist peers (Ashby, Rahotep, & Martin, 2005). Does the apparent lack of these characteristics place nonperfectionists at a disadvantage for academic achievement in comparison with perfectionists?
Several studies have used a student’s cumulative GPA as a measure of academic achievement and performance at the university level (Burger, 1992; McKenzie, Gow & Schweitzer, 2004; Nguyen, Allen, & Fraccastoro, 2005; Svanum & Zody, 2001). Burger (1992) found that students with a high desire for control aspired to achieve higher grades and did in fact achieve higher grades than those students with a low desire for control.
Another study examined the relationship between the personality trait of conscientiousness and overall GPA (Nguyen, et al., 2005). Conscientiousness was defined by the Five Factor Model (Nguyen, et al., 2005) as having traits of thoroughness, responsibility, diligence, organization, and perseverance. Participants who scored high on conscientiousness also reported higher GPAs than those of less conscientious participants.
Svanum and Zody (2001) predicted that anxiety would be negatively correlated with academic achievement, but were surprised to find that students with some type of anxiety disorders actually had high GPAs. McKenzie, Gow, and Schweitzer (2004) contended that a student’s level of neuroticism or emotional instability does not directly affect grades and academic performance. Instead their study found previous academic performance, displaying high levels of conscientiousness, an internal locus of control, and valuing the task to be the most important predictors of learning strategies used by college students. Consequently, having motivation, the skill to perform, and the willpower to succeed are all essentials for students to achieve high academic success.
Several studies that focused on perfectionism used a student’s GPA as a variable to measure differences between perfectionists and nonperfectionists (Rice & Ashby, 2007; Rice & Dellwo, 2002). One study used two subscales of the FMPS (Personal Standards and Concern over Mistakes) to research the academic behaviors and emotional well-being of college students. The findings revealed a positive correlation between Personal Standards and GPA, but no apparent relationship with Concern over Mistakes and GPA (Brown, Heimberg, Frost, Makris, Juster, & Leung, 1999).
Other research has indicated that nonperfectionists tend to have lower GPAs than both adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists (Rice & Ashby, 2007). Some studies have also noted a significant difference between the GPAs of adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists, with adaptive perfectionists having higher GPAs than maladaptive (Ashby & Bruner, 2005; Rice & Ashby, 2007). Contradictory research shows no significant difference in the GPAs of the two groups of perfectionists (Grzegorek, et al., 2004; Rice & Dellwo, 2002; Rice & Slaney, 2002).
In order to ascertain if there is a difference, this study investigated the relationship between academic performance and the characteristics of perfectionism. We hypothesized that college students with higher GPAs would be more likely to classify themselves as perfectionists than their nonperfectionist peers.
A total of 41 undergraduate students (20 men and 21 women) attending the 2006-2007 academic school year at a small, Midwestern Christian liberal arts university participated in this study. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 25 years (M = 20.17; SD 1.61) with 43.9% classified as freshman, 26.8% as sophomores, 9.76% as juniors, and 19.5% as seniors. The sample consisted of 36 Caucasian, 1 African-American, 1 Indian, 1 Native American, 1 Swahili, and 1 participant marked as “Other.”
Every student had a minimum enrollment of 12 academic credit hours. Students were selected by systematic random sampling from a directory obtained from the university registrar. This directory listed students according to the amount of credit hours taken for the 2007 spring semester.
The Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (FMPS) (Frost, Marten, Lahart, & Rosenblate, 1990) was used for this study to operationalize perfectionism as well as to measure the degree of perfectionism demonstrated by each participant. This scale measures six dimensions of perfectionism: Concern over Mistakes (CM), Personal Standards (PS), Parental Expectations (PE), Parental Criticism (PC), Doubting of Actions (DA), and a separate but related dimension of perfectionism, Organization (O). Each dimension is assessed on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).
The internal consistency of the FMPS was tested in the original article with coefficients ranging from .77 to .93 and an overall reliability of .90 (Frost, et al., 1990). The subscales relate to other measures of perfectionism in expected directions (Frost, et al., 1993; Rice et al., 1998). Test-retest reliability has ranged from scores of .69 to .88 over a ten-week period (Rice & Dellwo, 2002).
The cumulative GPA of each participant functioned as the independent variable of this study. Based on a 4-point scale, GPA can range from 0 to 4.00. A cumulative GPA is an indicator of academic achievement that reflects a student’s combined course performance. In this study the range of GPA was 1.54 to 3.95 with a mean of 2.91 and a standard deviation of .67.
A directory of 749 full-time students was acquired from the university registrar that listed only those students enrolled in at least 12 academic credit hours for the 2007 spring semester. We randomly selected every other student in the directory to obtain a sample of 375 participants. The selected students were contacted through their university email account and university mailbox requesting their voluntary participation in a research project studying the correlation between diligence and academic performance.
A total of 41 students attended one of the two research sessions held in the same on-campus classroom. After signing both an informed consent and a consent to obtain their GPA from the university registrar, students were administered the FMPS (Frost et al., 1990). After each student completed the scale, he or she was given a form listing the names and contact information of the researchers should they have any questions regarding the study or desire to know the final results of the study. After obtaining each student’s cumulative GPA from the university registrar, the individual’s score on the FMPS was matched with the GPA.
A Pearson r correlation coefficient was used to analyze the relationship between five dimensions of perfectionism (Concern over Mistakes, Parental Expectations, Parental Criticism, Personal Standards, and Doubting of Actions) and cumulative GPA. Using an alpha level of .05 with 39 degrees of freedom, the obtained r (r =.175) was found to be less than the critical r (r =.308). Therefore, the null hypothesis was retained and no significant relationship between perfectionism and cumulative GPA was found. Figure 1 shows the scatterplot for this data.
Figure 1. GPA and Perfectionism. Research data.
Two Pearson r correlation coefficients were used to analyze the relationship between adaptive perfectionism (as assessed by the combined subscales of Personal Standards and Organization) and GPA and maladaptive perfectionism (as assessed by the combination of the remaining 4 dimensions) and GPA. Neither of the obtained r’s revealed a significant relationship between either adaptive or maladaptive perfectionism and GPA.
The reported means for each subscale for nonclinical volunteers has been reported to be as follows: CM, 17.43 (SD=5.25); DA, 7.74 (SD=3.15); PC, 8.69 (SD=3.65); PE, 13.63 (SD=4.31); PS, 22.74 (SD=6.07); O, 22.57 (SD=4.38). Clinical volunteers with OCD reported the following means: CM, 21.53 (SD=7.87); DA, 14.44 (SD=4.34).
The total mean perfectionism score for our sample was 79 (SD=14.40). The volunteers in our sample scored the following means on each subscale: CM, 22.18 (SD=7.89); DA, 10.27 (SD=3.21); PC, 9.15 (SD=4.85); PE, 14.80 (SD=3.67); PS, 22.90 (SD=5.92); O, 21.73 (SD=5.56) (see Table 1).
The main purpose of this study was to determine if there was a positive correlation between perfectionism, as measured by the FMPS, and cumulative GPA. In accordance with some previous findings, our study showed no significant relationship between perfectionism and cumulative GPA (Rice & Dellwo, 2002). Other research, however, has indicated that perfectionists do in fact have higher GPAs than nonperfectionists (Grzegorek et al, 2004; Rice & Ashby, 2007; Rice & Slaney, 2002). More specifically a positive correlation between adaptive perfectionism and academic achievement, and a negative correlation between maladaptive perfectionism and academic achievement has also been found (Rice & Ashby, 2007; Rice & Slaney, 2002).
The Pearson r, which was conducted on the individual clusters of scores that combined to create each participant’s FMPS score and GPA, did not show any significant correlation. The results showed some small consistencies but on the whole showed more of a mélange of data rather than any coherent pattern.
The results of the study suggest that the characteristic of perfectionism may not be a determinant of academic achievement, or at least not for the participants in this study. The internal validity of the FMPS was subject to the self-perception bias of the participants. Past studies have shown that behavior does not always reflect values. The participants in this study might have perceived themselves to be higher or lower on any of the dimensions of perfectionism than their behavior and lifestyle would actually reflect. Another possible limitation to internal validity is the participant’s concern of self-presentation. Before taking the FMPS, each participant was asked to sign a consent form releasing permission to the researchers to obtain cumulative GPAs. To the extent that academic achievement is valued or representative of intellectual abilities in the individual’s judgment, participants were likely to respond to questions in a self-enhancing manner.
This study also illustrates that some of the more stereotypical indicators of perfectionism such as organization and personal standards do not guarantee that one will be classified as a perfectionist, according to the FMPS, or have a high GPA as a result. Frost, et al., (1990) found in their study dealing with the dimensions of perfectionism, that Concern over Mistakes was a major component in the measure of perfectionism. This is not one of the facets typically focused on when attempting to define perfectionism. Instead, it is thought of as a separate yet helpful dimension of perfectionism.
Based on our small and homogenous sample, the results of this study can only be generalized to students attending small liberal arts universities. It is possible that samples from different universities could yield different results. Some universities might place a greater emphasis on academic excellence, fostering a more competitive environment, and therefore, attracting students with perfectionistic traits. It is interesting to note that a higher score for Concern over Mistakes and Doubting of Actions was found in this study in comparison with both the non-clinical sample and the OCD sample (see Table 1). A possible explanation for higher scores on these dimensions could be the influence of religious beliefs and affiliations on perfectionistic behaviors or impressions. Because our sample was taken from a Christian liberal arts university, it is probable that the majority of the participants adopted religious beliefs. Christians who seek to avoid sinful behaviors might also relate making mistakes with sin. Future studies would benefit from using more religiously diverse samples in order to ascertain whether or not there a connection exists between these variables.
Several important limitations to the present study must be mentioned. First, there is no consensus on a measure or model of perfectionism. The present research does not take into consideration the importance of specific perfectionist facets not measured by the FMPS. It would be important to examine the influence of perfectionism on academic performance based on other models and measures of perfectionism.
Secondly, the influence of personality factors and individual differences is believed to be largely mediated by how individuals cope with stressful situations. McKenzie, Gow, and Schweitzer (2004) found that previous high academic performance, use of self-regulatory learning strategies, and being introverted and agreeable, were indicators of academic success in the first semester of university study. Hence, it would be important to determine if and how other variables might mediate the influence of perfectionism on academic performance. Future research should therefore observe, record, and assess individual differences. This could potentially include personality traits, family dynamics, and cultural exposure.
Another limitation is the clear homogeneity of the sample. Similar to many studies published on perfectionism, the present sample was largely Caucasian. As noted by Chang (1998), given that Asians report greater perfectionist tendencies than Caucasians, it is important to determine the extent to which ethnic or racial differences affect perfectionism. More research is needed to examine the role of perfectionism in more diverse populations.
Although the present study examined the influence of perfectionism on academic performance in the collegiate arena, this limited the results to a specific age group. It would be of value for future research not to limit the population to college-aged students alone. Gilman and Ashby (2003) completed a study on perfectionism among middle school students and found a positive correlation between perfectionism and academic performance. A possible limitation is that college is a choice, while high school is not. Therefore, to rely solely on a college-aged sample could bias the outcome of this study because most students are attending out of choice and may tend to have more commitment and drive in the academic realm.
Academic performance exclusively identified by GPA is another possible limitation. Students who took part in this study could have very different schedules and loads that could possibly alter their academic performance positively or negatively. Giving perfectionism such a broad definition, as well, could have limited this study. The definition failed to take into consideration the two different types of perfectionism: adaptive and maladaptive. Previous studies had mixed results in regard to the academic performance among adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists, so we chose not to separate them in this study. Rice and Dellwo (2002) for example, in their study about perfectionism and college adjustment, found no differences between the two groups of perfectionists when it came to cumulative GPA.
The present data seem to indicate that future studies would benefit from a further examination of the different types of perfectionism and how they relate to academic performance. It may also be beneficial for researchers to pay closer attention to individual differences in future investigations. Future research would benefit from examining religious affiliation and/or the beliefs of the participants. Also, variables such as personality traits, family dynamics, and cultural exposure could be taken into consideration. Finally, taking samples from multiple universities would provide a more diverse population.
Ashby, J. S. & Bruner, L. P. (2005). Multidimensional perfectionism and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Journal of College Counseling, 8(1), 31-40.
Ashby, J. S., Rahotep, S. S., & Martin, J. L. (2005).Multidimensional perfectionism and Rogerian personality constructs. Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education, and Development, 44, 55-65.
Ashby, J. S. & Rice, K. G. (2002). Perfectionism, dysfunctional attitudes, and self-esteem: A structural equations analysis. Journal of Counseling and Development, 80(2), 197-184.
Brown, E. J., Heimberg, R. G., Frost, R. O., Makris, G. S., Juster, H. R., & Leung, A. W. (1999). Relationship of perfectionism to affect, expectations, attributions and performance in the classroom. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 18, 98-120.
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Forbush, K., Heatherton, T. F., & Keel, P. K. (2007). Relationships between perfectionism and specific disordered eating behaviors. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 40(1), 37-41.
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Hamilton, T. K., & Schweitzer, R. D. (2000). The cost of being perfect: Perfectionism and suicide ideation in university students. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 34(5), 829-835.
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Table 1. (top)
Individual Means of FMPS Subscales
Concern Over Mistakes
Doubting of Actions
Email Requesting Participation
Dear Huntington University Student,
We need your help!! We are conducting a research study for Dr. Priest’s applied research class. YOU have been selected from a list of students to participate in our study!
Without your participation, we will not pass the class!!
All YOU need to do is show up for 20 minutes to take a simple SURVEY. Because we appreciate you so much, we will provide FREE DELICIOUS SNACKS AND REFRESHMENTS and give you the chance to win some FABULOUS PRIZES!
To accommodate your schedule, we are offering the survey on two different dates:
Tuesday, March 27
Thursday, March 29
Please come to Room 116 in the Loew-Brenn Building anytime between 4pm-5pm.
We need no more than 20 minutes of your time to pass our research class!! Hope to see you there!
Jessah Brumbaugh, Chace Olinger, & Rebecca Lepsik
I have been asked to participate in a research project investigating the relationship between diligence, work ethic, and academic performance.
This project is under the direction of Jessah Brumbaugh, Rebecca Lepsik, and Chace Olinger, three undergraduate students at Huntington College and is a part of a course requirement in the psychology and sociology major, supervised by Wane Priest, Ph.D.
I understand that there are no known risks associated with participating in this project and that I will be asked to complete a survey about diligence and work ethic. I will also be asked to sign a consent form which will allow Jessah, Rebecca, and Chace to obtain my official GPA from the registrar’s office.
I understand that information gathered from me during this project will not be reported to anyone outside the project team in any manner which might personally identify me. A report of combined and generalized results involving multiple participants will be prepared and may be presented in a scholarly public forum.
My signature indicates that I understand and voluntarily agree to the conditions of participation described above, and that I may withdraw from the study at any time.
Printed Name Date
“Thank you for coming! Before you get started, we need your signature on this consent form to indicate that your participation is voluntary. It is also a record of your permission to obtain your official GPA from the registrar. Your GPA will be kept completely confidential and will not be published in our study.”
“This survey should take no longer than 20 minutes to complete. Please read through the instructions carefully and use the 5 point scale to describe how accurately each statement applies to you. Please don’t leave any of the statements blank. On the last page, please fill out your demographic information. Once you are finished, please bring both the survey and your consent form back to me.”
“Thank you so much for participating! Feel free to help yourself to the refreshments in the next room, Room 112. We will also be entering your name into a raffle for prizes & we will notify you through email if you win.”